Rick Pitino capped the greatest week of his life with the prize he wanted most of all.
Luke Hancock produced another huge game off the bench, scoring 22 points, and Pitino became the first coach to win national titles at two schools when relentless Louisville rallied from another 12-point deficit to beat Michigan 82-76 in the NCAA championship game Monday night.
This title came on the same day Pitino was announced as a member of the latest Hall of Fame class, a couple of days after his horse won a big race on the way to the Kentucky Derby, and a few more days after his son got the head coaching job at Minnesota.
This was the best feeling of all. The Cardinals (35-5) lived up to their billing as the top overall seed in the tournament, though they sure had to work for it.
Louisville trailed Wichita State by a dozen in the second half of the national semifinals, before rallying for a 72-68 victory. This time, they fell behind by 12 in the first half, though a stunning spurt at the end of the period wiped out the entire deficit.
For that, they can thank Hancock, named the most outstanding player. He came off the bench to hit four straight 3-pointers after Michigan got a boost from an even more unlikely player, freshman Spike Albrecht. He, too, made four straight from beyond the arc, blowing by his career high before the break with 17 points. Coming in, Albrecht was averaging 1.8 points a game and had not scored more than seven all season.
While Albrecht didn't do much in the second half, Hancock finished what he started for Louisville. He buried another 3 from the corner with 3:20 remaining to give the Cardinals their biggest lead, 76-66. Michigan wouldn't go away, but Hancock wrapped it up by making two free throws with 29 seconds left.
While Pitino shrugged off any attempt to make this about him, there was no doubt the Cardinals wanted to win a national title for someone else – injured guard Kevin Ware.
Watching again from his seat at the end of the Louisville bench, his injured right led propped up on a chair, Ware smiled and slapped hands with his teammates as they celebrated in the closing seconds, the victory coming just 30 miles from where he played his high school ball.
Any pain he was feeling from that gruesome injury in the regional final, when he landed awkwardly, snapped his leg and was left writhing on the floor with the bone sticking through the skin, was long gone as he hobbled gingerly onto the court with the aid of crutches, backing in a sea of confetti and streamers.
The attendance for Monday night's Louisville-Michigan game at the Georgia Dome was 74,326 – a record for a championship game.
The record may not last long. The 2014 Final Four will be held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Attendance there could reach 80,000.
Chane Behanan scored nine quick points early in the second half to help Louisville take a 58-54 lead over Michigan with 10 minutes left.
Behanan had 13 points for the game and Luke Hancock went 4-for-4 from 3-point range to lead the Cardinals (34-5) with 16 points, as the teams geared up for the stretch run of a breakneck, back-and-forth game.
Albrecht came in for Player of the Year Burke and made his first four 3-point attempts to lead the Wolverines with 17 points. Albrecht finally missed with a little more than 11 minutes left; he was still 9 for 10 from long range for the tournament.
Burke, in early foul trouble, had seven second-half points and 14 for the game. He was also perfect (3 for 3) from 3-point range.
Hancock made all four of his 3-pointers to start a 14-1 run for Louisville that briefly gave the Cardinals a one-point lead late in the first half after they trailed by 12. Michigan's Glenn Robinson III made two free throws with 2 seconds left to give the Wolverines the lead at the half but Louisville led by as many as five early in the second.
The Cardinals (34-5) have won six games this season after trailing by 10 or more, including Saturday night's semifinals, when they beat Wichita State 72-68 after also falling behind by 12.
It was shaping up as a scintillating final act of a season that has been more of a grind, with scoring at its lowest (67.49 points per team) since 1951-52 and shooting at its worst (43.3 percent) since 1964-65.
The 131.2-points-per-game average during March Madness is the lowest since the 3-point line was brought to the game in 1987, though the teams were on pace to easily surpass that after the first half.
“Look at the story lines out there,” Beilein said during a quick interview at halftime. “It's going to be one of the best games ever.”
Watching from the stands were all five members of the Fab Five, the brash group of sophomores who led Michigan (31-7) to the final in 1993 – the program's last appearance at the Final Four.
That included Chris Webber, who infamously called a timeout the Wolverines didn't have at the end of Michigan's 77-71 loss to North Carolina in the 1993 final. He has had very little to do with his alma mater in recent years, but was seen getting out of his car and heading into the Georgia Dome shortly before tip-off.
Top-seeded Louisville is trying to bring its first title back to the state of Kentucky's “other” school since 1986. Sitting on the bench with the Cardinals is sophomore guard Kevin Ware, the team's inspiration since snapping his tibia in the regional final last weekend.
Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is working the sideline hours after being chosen for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Pitino is trying to become the first coach to lead two programs to national championships. He took Kentucky to the title in 1996.
Russ Smith, the Louisville team leader who Pitino has nicknamed “Russdiculous” for some of his wild – and wildly effective – antics on the court, scores 18.9 points a game for the Cardinals during the season but has picked up the scoring in the tournament, averaging 25 in the five Louisville wins.
The Cardinals are playing without their main reserve, Ware, who broke his leg in the regional final against Duke. Needing a pickup without Ware, Hancock led the scoring against Wichita State. And rarely used walk-on Tim Henderson made two key 3-pointers during the comeback.
“The other night, we were not going to play in the championship game unless a walk-on steps up and makes a play to give us momentum,” Pitino said in a pregame interview.
Michigan topped Syracuse 61-56 on Saturday despite an off night from Burke, who finished with only seven points on 1-for-8 shooting. Burke, a sophomore, seriously considered leaving for the NBA after last season but decided he had unfinished business left in Ann Arbor. He picked up the AP Player of the Year award, among others, and is now one victory away from the ultimate prize in college hoops.